Shed aesthetics: beauty and the beast

Despite the industrial markets’ huge popularity at the moment, developers are having to raise their design standards to attract high-quality tenants and keep town planners happy.

When the people of Hounslow were asked if they would like to see a new park in the borough, 96.6% said they would. No surprise there. What has raised a few eyebrows is that Formal Investments, the developer behind the application, has something far bigger in mind: 2m sq ft of warehousing space. Underneath the park.

Whether the scheme gets the go-ahead or not, it is a sign of the times. Sheds have never been more in demand. New-builds of unprecedented scale, often with large office spaces inside, are springing up all over the country in urban and rural locations and encroaching more and more on existing, non-industrial space.

It is good news for shed developers, but does raise some questions and, for the first time, some of these are about design.

What has often been an afterthought, or no thought at all - the aesthetics of a shed - is becoming more important, especially in the eyes of town planners responsible for making sure sectors blend together. Property Week takes a look at a new class of sheds coming off the drawing boards.

There’s an onus placed on developers to find innovative ways to assimilate buildings into the surrounding landscape through the built form or external appearance - Ben Taylor, Barton Willmore

The need for more sheds, and larger sheds, is a healthy sign of an economy growing and adapting - to ecommerce among other boom industries.

But it also means more land swallowed up, less open space and, for local authorities, more planning headaches.

Ben Taylor, planning associate at architects firm Barton Willmore, says: “This can create tension when they are situated in a sensitive landscape context, as the increasing scale of these buildings can make the visual impacts more difficult to soften through strategic planting alone.

“This places an onus on developers to find innovative ways to assimilate buildings into the surrounding landscape, whether that be through the built form or external appearance.”

A new concern

External appearance hasn’t always been the top concern for shed designers. By definition, warehouses and distribution centres are about function, not form. But times change and with bigger footprints, taller elevations and new uses, the appearance of sheds is under more scrutiny than ever, says Philip Woolner, managing partner at Cheffins.

“Today, we are seeing sheds that have become the object of rigorous internal and external uplifts [in design standards] partly in order to ease planning, but also to attract the best tenants and staff. Shed aesthetics have moved on significantly, both internally and externally, in the past decade,” he says. “Developers’ and tenants’ mindsets have moved on from 2008-09, when functionality and cost saving were the most important attributes of industrial units.”

Formal Investments’ solution to this in Hounslow might be the most radical put to paper, but it certainly isn’t the only one. At Rugby Gateway, in the Midlands ‘Golden Triangle’, for example, Roxhill and SEGRO have put the concept of ‘gradients’ on the outer walls of the sheds to good use, to create the effect of blending the buildings with the skyline.

There is an expectation that the buildings will blend better into the environment - Bridget Outtrim, Savills

The principle isn’t new but it is becoming de rigueur in shed design - a simple but effective way of blending buildings with their environments. David Binks, Cushman & Wakefield’s national head of logistics and industrial, notes this is just one of a number of design measures.

“When you see these buildings [with gradients on the outer walls] together, it really does help the camouflage element of it.

“It’s a combination of function and aesthetics that works very well,” he says. “You’re also seeing more of the curved roof being used these days, and there is more use of dry materials rather than lots of concrete being poured in.”

Great expectations

So what has brought about these changes? Bridget Outtrim, a director in Savills’ South East industrial team, believes higher expectations from planners have been a factor.

“The first drivers for this came about 15 years ago but we have seen some big changes recently. And now that planners have started to see that it can be done, it’s starting to be a requirement. There is an expectation that the buildings will blend better into the environment,” she says.

Cutting-edge design communicates to investors and occupiers that they are buying into a product that can be relied on - Alan Lamb, AEW Architects

Of course, there is also a commercial imperative. Market forces are also behind the push to make sheds more attractive, says Woolner: “The industrial sector has become increasingly competitive and, as a result, developers need to provide the best in standards to attract tenants,” he adds.

The big buyers on the block - think Amazon and ASOS - are not just looking for space; they are looking for the right type of warehouses: sleek, modern, high-tech and sustainable.

“As such, developers are in the position where they have to provide quality and quantity. And in this high-pressure market, says Alan Lamb, associate director at AEW Architects, appearance matters.

Lamb, whose firm was behind the designs for db symmetry’s M6 Epic scheme near Wigan, says: “Developers are of course looking to respond positively to residents and planners alike. However, for many the improvement we are seeing in shed aesthetics is largely down to branding and how these schemes represent the developer.

“Cutting-edge design communicates to investors and occupiers that they are buying into a product that can be relied on; one that hasn’t cut corners on build quality, sustainability, floor loadings, utilities, durability and flexibility.”

Places for people

Developers also overlook another big shift in the occupier market at their peril. Tech and manufacturing companies are setting up their HQs where they do their best business: on the warehouse floor. If staff are going to be persuaded to travel to an office in a rural shed, it has to be appealing.

“A lot of the time, sheds are the headquarters of the company as well and a lot of people work there,” says Alex Verbeek, managing director at IDI Gazeley. “They might have 25,000 sq ft of office space, which is more than many city centre office buildings, so it’s critical that staff are in pleasant environments.

“Getting the environment right provides lower operating costs because of less sick leave and better staff retention and attendance. People want to be there more if it’s a nicer environment.”

As things stand, there is no binding legislation covering the link between buildings and wellness at work. But in the same way BREEAM improved standards of sustainability in construction, another benchmark, the WELL Building Standard, might easily move higher up boardroom agendas.

Getting the environment right provides lower operating costs because of better staff retention and attendance - Alex Verbeek, IDI Gazeley

Defined by the International WELL Building Institute, the standard ranks workplace buildings by a number of criteria, including mental wellbeing, with the aim of encouraging productivity, engagement and retention.

Occupiers’ expectations are rising and so are those of local authorities, and now developers’ brands are on the line, based partly on the look of their sheds. An afterthought it once may have been, but in this brave new world, shed aesthetics matter.

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